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Review: Stranger Things: The First Shadow (Phoenix Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


2023 hasn’t been without its big West End shows but perhaps the biggest has been left until last as in the final stretch of the year, Stranger Things: The First Shadow has opened. Based on the worldwide phenomenon that is the Netflix series, millions of fans ensured tickets for this show sold out quicker than you can count to eleven. With so much success before it’s even opened, the challenge is to make a show worthy of all this hype – would this show be able to meet the almost impossible expectations? Stranger things have happened!

I always endeavour to fill my reviews with discussion on the show without revealing any spoilers about the content. With a show like Stranger Things: The First Shadow, this is even more crucial as revealing key plot points would ruin the surprise and possibly even enjoyment for others when they see it for the first time. Everybody deserves the opportunity to experience this firsthand and be shocked by all its twists and turns. With that in mind, this is a spoiler-free review, so no need to turn the review upside down in a bid to escape any reveals.

If you are unfamiliar with Stranger Things, to describe it as a sensation would be an understatement. Since it premiered in 2016, it has effortlessly eased its way into pop culture references, spawned every bit of merchandise you can think of and even have its own parody musical (Stranger Sings, now playing in London). The basic premise of the series begins in 1983 set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, as another world known as the Upside Down has repercussions in the world we know with disappearances, superpowers and a whole lot of mysteries to unravel. While the series so far takes place from 1983 – 1986, this play is a prequel, taking place in 1959.

That brings me to a question many are wondering – do you need to have seen all of Stranger Things to understand and enjoy the show? The answer to that is not necessarily. While watching all of the episodes so far will make the story a bit easier to understand, going in with the prior knowledge of characters and events that are referenced, it is still accessible to those who aren’t overly familiar with the show. Wonderfully, The First Shadow can be treated as a standalone piece of theatre with a story that features a start, middle and end, though there are also some great Easter eggs that will go over the heads of some while making others smile.

Extending a brand into a different medium is a move that doesn’t always pay off. What works on TV may not necessarily work on stage. This is something that has very much been considered when creating The First Shadow taking the elements that make the series so beloved and adapting it in a way that effortlessly transitions to the stage as well as adding in some new elements. One masterstroke is including theatre in itself as a part of the story which gives the show something new to play with and results in some glorious sequences. With a story by series creators The Duffer Brothers alongside Jack Thorne and Kate Trefry with Kate responsible for the book of the show. The result is a well-written show that plays out like two extended episodes of the series, with each act getting its own subtitle. The writing is consistently strong throughout, particularly in its exposition of characters we know from the series in their younger forms.

There are plenty of reasons to love this breathtakingly brilliant show but none more so than its world class special effects. While there are some great shows using spectacular visual effects in the West End at the moment, Stranger Things: The First Shadow takes this already ridiculously high bar and destroys it, with a revolutionary and mind-blowing implementation of them. Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher provide illusions and visual effects that constantly amaze with what can only be described as the best use of video design I have ever seen by 59 Productions. Together, these two elements create pure theatre magic which pushes the capabilities of what can be achieved with great theatre and takes it all to an unbeatable new level. The seamless way live action mixes with these effects is awe-inspiring and requires some precise choreography courtesy of Coral Messam. Lighting is a crucial element of this production too with Jon Clark showing no end to creative choices throughout, transforming the entire space, far beyond the stage with stunning design.

These high-quality and complex creative elements require particularly phenomenal direction – Stephen Daldry doesn’t disappoint in this respect. With co-direction by Justin Martin, they ensure the action moves the story along and plays out seamlessly with every choice painstakingly executed and well thought out. Wowing at every turn, the direction is every bit as incredible as the writing, effects and illusions. A special mention must also go to Paul Arditti’s sound design whose eerie effects is a major part of the beautiful escapism as we are transported into the world of Hawkins, with a particular clever effect used to amplify the rage that intersperses the story.

All of these production values may be as exquisite as it gets but the world-class cast more than match this quality. Isabella Pappas perfectly captures a young Wynona Ryder as Joyce Maldonado with a charismatic performance that sees her commanding the stage whenever she is present. Other familiar characters from the TV series have their younger selves portrayed with an outstanding performance from Oscar Lloyd as the mischievous James Hopper Jr and Christopher Buckley a standout as Bob Newby. Ella Karuna Williams gives a star turn as Patty Newby, winning the hearts of everybody in a captivating performance, while Max Harwood is extremely memorable if not disappointingly underused as Alan Munson.

Michael Jibson and Lauren Ward get standout moments as Henry’s parents Victor and Virginia Creel, both showcasing fantastic acting in emotive performances, shining at every turn. One of the most iconic roles in the series is Dr Brenner – it is Patrick Vaill who steps into those shoes in this production, making the role his own while staying true to the character in a dominating and menacing portrayal (again, no spoilers). Having appeared in Oklahoma earlier this year, a reference to that same musical is made all the more humorous due to his presence.

While the cast are all spectacular in their own right, no matter how big or small the part, there is one performance that will stay in the minds of everybody who sees The First Shadow for ages. That part belongs to Louis McCartney in his inspiringly impressive turn as Henry Creel. The main character of the show and the centrepiece of the story, what Louis does on that stage is nothing short of amazing. In a physically demanding role, Louis showcases no shortage of talent as he pulls focus every time in what has to be one of the single best character performances in theatre this year. With the extreme variance in his interactions with fellow characters in the play, Louis astounds at every turn in a role I have no doubt will garner him no shortage of award nominations.

If hopes and expectations were high for Stranger Things: The First Shadow, they more than rose to the occasion. The greatest show you will see in the theatre visually, this production pushes the perceived limits of what can be achieved in theatre and completely obliterates it, using state-of-the-art technology to produce the single most impressive show in the West End at the moment. With every production element more than matching this level and a world-class cast at its disposal, the end result is an absolute triumph. Whether you are a diehard fan of Stranger Things or have never seen an episode in your life, there is something for everyone in The First Shadow. Theatre at its very best, this play may have just turned the entire West End upside down.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is playing at the Phoenix Theatre.

Photos by Manuel Harlan

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